Industrialisation & temperance

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Heritage Park - Gafyn Williams

Government reports on Wales portrayed a country of ignorance and moral laxity. The patriotic backlash was a boost for Nonconformity and its values.

Following the public disturbances in Wales during the 1830s and 1840s the government commissioned a number of reports, the most famous of which was an examination of the education system. Popularly known as the Blue Books, it resulted in uproar when it was published in 1847.

The report contained a number of valid points but it was weakened by the fact it had been carried out by three English lawyers who had little or no previous knowledge of Wales and its native language.

As well as noting the deficiencies in the provision of education in the country, it also contained material critical of the Welsh language as well as the morals of the Welsh people.

The report became part of the intense religious debate taking place in the country between the Nonconformist and the established Church. It was portrayed by some Nonconformists as a direct Anglican attack on the Welsh people and their culture, a charge which was unfair to say the least.

There were patriotic Anglicans in Wales who also attacked the report for its faults, yet the fevered atmosphere caused contributed to the general impression that the Church of England was an 'alien' presence in the country.

Alien or not, in 1851 the only religious census in this country showed that Anglican worshippers in Wales were in the minority - most Christians were by then Nonconformist.

The Industrial Revolution was proceeding apace. The first wave of industrialism was built upon metal, such as iron and copper works. But by the middle of the nineteenth century coal mining was beginning to take off as the fuel demand for furnaces, railways and steamships began to rise.

It is no coincidence that all this activity was taking place at the same time as the British Empire was expanding and acquiring new territories and resources. These factors led to Wales becoming one of the first countries to have a majority of its people working in industry, a development of crucial importance to Welsh politics right down to the present day.

People flooded into the valleys of south Wales to find work, creating new communities in the process. As new pits were sunk, new chapels were rising in the industrial areas at a quicker rate than Anglican churches. As a consequence Nonconformity was to leave a particular stamp on the culture of Wales, particularly in these valley towns.

Alcohol was a particular bugbear of the chapels in these areas, and a sustained period of campaigning saw the passing of the Sunday Closing Act in 1881. The measure to close pubs on the Sabbath was one of the few pieces of legislation of the period which referred only to Wales, so Nonconformity can be shown to have contributed to the growing distinctiveness of the country.

Yet not all patriots would raise a glass to its passing since it was one of the measures that gave religion, particularly in the Welsh language, such a killjoy image. This was to rebound spectacularly on both Nonconformity and the language much later on in the next century, but in the meantime the forces of temperance were to enjoy a huge influence over the next hundred years.

Chapels became the centres of cultural activity in these new towns, and much of the tradition of Welsh choral singing dates from this period. This was helped by the introduction of the Sol-fa musical system which enabled large numbers of people to take an active part in choir singing. A major motive in encouraging music making was to keep people out of the pubs.


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